In his first statements since reports that he leaked highly classified information to the Russians, President Donald Trump did not deny those reports.
The Washington Post reported Monday evening that Trump revealed “code-word information” to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in a White House meeting last week, citing anonymous sources. The New York Times said in a subsequent report that they could confirm that reporting. Both publications said the information was pertaining to an ISIS plot and was provided to the U.S. by an ally.
“The information the president relayed had been provided by a U.S. partner through an intelligence-sharing arrangement considered so sensitive that details have been withheld from allies and tightly restricted even within the U.S. government, officials said,” the Post story said.
Trump tweeted about the news Tuesday morning, and instead of denying the reports he said he had the “absolute right” to share information with Russia. He mentioned “humanitarian reasons.”
Executive Order 13526 currently governs national security information. Lawfare, a blog created by well-known lawyers on the law and national security, said it is not illegal for the president to disclose classified information as he sees fit.
“The reason is that the very purpose of the classification system is to protect information the President, usually through his subordinates, thinks sensitive,” attorneys wrote in the blog post reacting to the reports. “So the President determines the system of designating classified information through Executive Order, and he is entitled to depart from it at (sic) well.”
However, the blog post does say Trump’s actions could constitute a violation of his oath of office, even if he had done so through “carelessness or neglect.”
“In taking the oath President Trump swore to ‘faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States’ and to ‘preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States’ to the best of his ability,” attorneys wrote. “It’s very hard to argue that carelessly giving away highly sensitive material to an adversary foreign power constitutes a faithful execution of the office of President.”
A former senior U.S. intelligence official told McClatchy the disclosure was “an intelligence officer’s worst nightmare.”
Trump’s alleged disclosure to the Russian government followed his firing of FBI Director James Comey on May 9. Trump said in an interview that Comey’s ongoing investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia in the 2016 presidential election had factored into Trump’s decision to fire him.
About an hour after the original tweets, Trump again tried to turn the focus on those leaking information to the press.
National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster said the Post and Times reports were false in a statement to the press Monday night.
“There’s nothing that the president takes more seriously than the security of the American people. The story that came out tonight, as reported, is false. The president and the foreign minister reviewed a range of common threats to our two countries, including threats to civil aviation. At no time — at no time — were intelligence sources or methods discussed,” McMaster said. “And the president did not disclose any military operations that were not already publicly known. Two other senior officials who were present, including the secretary of state, remember it being the same way and have said so. Their on-the-record accounts should outweigh those of anonymous sources. And I was in the room. It didn’t happen.”
Analysis of the denial by the Post said its report did not say Trump disclosed intelligence sources or methods or publicly known military operations.
“Instead, the report states clearly only that Trump discussed an Islamic State plot and the city where the plot was detected by an intelligence-gathering partner. Officials worried that this information could lead to the discovery of the methods and sources involved, but it didn’t say Trump discussed them.”